Jena Malone: Coming of Age
16-year-old Jena Malone has been in films since age 11 but she's just now being recognized as an actress with an adult range. She plays two very different "girls next door" this Fall. In Life is a House, she's hot young star Hayden Christensen's girlfriend and is Jake Gyllenhaal's girl in the fantasy film Donnie Darko which is produced by Drew Barrymore's company. When we talked with her, we found her to be very "un-Hollywood". The petite brunette was casual in shirt and jeans and tucked her feet under her and lounged comfortably as we talked. Jena was big news a few years ago when she emancipated herself from her parents. She talks about her family relationship now, opinion on high school, working with a 26-year-old first time writer/director on Donnie and doing love scenes with hot young actors.
Teenhollywood: Your characters in Life is a House and Donnie Darko are so different. Which one was closest to you?
Jena: The one I found more challenging was definitely Life is a House. I found when I read it I got trapped into it, just the normal girl coming of age sexually and she has things she has to deal with in life but she's not a dark character. I find that when I have to just be normal and not fully creating something, stripping yourself down and allowing yourself to be on the screen as you, it's harder. Donnie Darko was also challenging because of the process. Richard (Kelly the writer/director) gave us freedom to go in and rehearse and make it what we wanted and make decisions on backstory and emotional life but also reigning us in and keeping the same story structure.
Teenhollywood: Donnie Darko is a fantasy film that is sometimes hard to follow. Did you feel that when you read the script?
Jena: Well, I read the script four different times before I took a meeting with Richard and then I just sat down and the whole meeting was asking him questions about the script. I had lot of questions. People are going to have a lot of questions when they see this film but I think that it's important to walk out of a film and sort of have to analyze what you went through, at least knowing that you went through something instead of, "gee, golly, that looked good."
Teenhollywood: How was it working with Richard Kelly as a first time director?
Jena: When you work with first time directors you don't know what to expect. You don't know what you're gonna need to bring and how you're gonna have to depend on yourself. He was so giving and so there. I don't think I've ever felt that a director really "had my back" and understood what I was doing. It was amazing. I think he has a long career ahead of him.
Teenhollywood: What about working with an experienced director like Irwin Winkler on Life is a House?
Jena: It's different. One is trying to establish himself, working extra hard to go out there and make this film work, whereas Winkler has established himself. He's produced Rocky and done all these amazing things. He has less to prove. They both work in different ways. Irwin just lets you go and do whatever you want, just hires you because he knows you're gonna do the job that you're asked. Richard just tells you what it is that he wants so what you create will be on the same lines.
Teenhollywood: Is it difficult for you to do love scenes?
Jena: When you're working and there are love scenes on the set it's a different thing than real life (surprise!). It's very technical and you sort of grow a relationship with your fellow actor you are working with. I have no qualms about trying things and figuring them out, not being thrown off.
Teenhollywood: You and Hayden Christensen didn't have to shoot your love scene the first day on set did you?
Jena: Oh no! Hayden and I became really good friends. We just did the scene and were laughing our way through it. It was great.
Teenhollywood: Gee, you get to kiss everybody. Jake Gyllenhaal in Donnie, Hayden and Kevin Kline in Life is a House.
Jena: It's crazy. I never expected to be around all these good-looking men and have the opportunity. Didn't think I'd have a shot at all.
Teenhollywood: Did you and Hayden joke about his role in Star Wars?
Jena: It's an amazing opportunity that he has and regardless of all the buzz and craziness he has around him, he has this amazing head on his shoulders. I think he's gonna ease right through the whole craziness that's going to come next summer. He's really talented which is more important than the roles you get; the talent that you have and want to increase and challenge yourself and keep growing.
Teenhollywood: You've been playing different types but still the girl next door. Are you up now for a period movie or an action film?
Jena: Yeah, definitely. I think if you're not challenging yourself, what you're doing isn't as important.
Teenhollywood: When you were young did you have a passion for acting?
Jena: When I first started it was just this idea in my head and knowing that you like creating things that aren't you and knowing you like to tell stories with expressions and images. Then you realize it's a whole business you have to understand. It's 95 percent bullshit and 5 percent passion. You have to have a strong passion for it that overrides the bullshit. You only get to act 70 hours a year. Any art form has politics. Now, there are so many aspects of filmmaking that are so interesting to me. Being involved at a young age and watching everyone doing it, sort of inspired me to want to make my own things.
Teenhollywood: Both of these films deal with family relationships. You had some trouble early on and got emancipated from your mom. Are things okay now?
Jena: Family is important. I see them as much as I can. They fully support what I do. In some ways I emancipated to control the business side of my career. You get to an age where you want to understand how the business works. I'd like to know technically, financially, everything. I wanted to start controlling things, doing my own thing and I have an amazing relationship with my mom now and an amazing relationship with my friends and family. It's great. It's a matter of wanting to be fully responsible for all of my actions. If there's a mistake made, I'm gonna be accountable not someone else.
Teenhollywood: What are some of the most important qualities in someone you would like to date?
Jena: They have to have something that drives them through life. There has to be more than sitting around goofing off and finding a brainless job. You have to have something that fires you and drives you. Whatever. Just something that you are interested in and have passion about. Passion is such an attractive thing about people. It's all about awareness.
Teenhollywood: What are you looking for when you get a script?
Jena: There's not that much out there. I find there are great things for like 22-year-old women and great roles for guys. I guess what I'm trying to stay away from is when I read a script and there's a role for a young person and it's just plot driven. It's just there to be 'the daughter' or 'the teenager' or 'the cheerleader'. It's pointless. I find that with Life is a House and Donnie Darko, each of my characters is given a full arc and each is developed into something that's tangible and interesting. I guess I'm looking more for truth than stereotypes.
Teenhollywood: Are you still in high school?
Jena: No. I graduated. I took the GED (high school equivalency test). I'll be going to college next year. I'm applying now and taking SATs. I want a liberal arts college. I think high school (for me) is completely overrated. I don't think I learned anything. I think I would have gotten more out of high school if I didn't know what I wanted out of life and I already knew so therefore, I want to go out and study what I want to study like photography, cinematography and writing, literature. There's so much out there and you just want to go out and explore.
Teenhollywood: What advice would you give to teens who want to act?
Jena: Go out and do plays. Sing on the streets, just go out regardless of whether you have a job. Go out and explore it and nurture it regardless of whether it's going to make you money or help you acquire fame and fortune. It's more important when you are younger to figure out what you want. Go in and say, 'alright, I think I like this so let me explore it and figure out what it is that I like about it'. Then when you have to have a career, you know what you want.
Teenhollywood: Do you remember when you decided you wanted to act?
Jena: I was like four and I was sitting on the piano and my mom was doing community theater and I remember watching her on stage and being in awe that you could push people's buttons and make them feel things, laugh and all in this fairytale, make-believe land.
Teenhollywood: What are you working on?
Jena: There's this thing that I finished called American Girl although that's probably not the title anymore. It'll probably be Lifer's Picnic. It's this small, independent comedy, dark, weird, out there. White trash goes to visit their family in prison and all this crazy stuff happens. It's with Brad Renfro and Alicia Witt.
Teenhollywood: What's in your CD player?
Jena: Phish, Ben Harper, P.J. Harvey.
Interviewer and writer Lynn Barker is a Hollywood-based entertainment journalist and produced screenwriter.